Program Notes: The Firebird

Concert Program

Anatol Liadov (1855 – 1914)
Kikimora, op.63
Serge Prokofiev
Sinfonia concertante for Violoncello & Orchestra, op.125
I. Andante
II. Allegro giusto
III. Andante con moto – Allegretto – Allegro marcato
Anatol Liadov (1855 – 1914)
The Enchanted Lake (Volshebnoye ozero), op.62
Igor Stravinsky
Suite (1919 version) from The Firebird
1. Introduction
2. L’Oiseau de feu et sa danse & Variation de l’oiseau de feu
3. Ronde des princesses
4. Danse infernale du roi Kastcheï
5. Berceuse
6. Final


Program Notes

Born in St Petersburg, Russia, April 29 / May 11, 1855; died in Polïnovka, Novgorod district, August 16/28, 1914
Kikimora: Legend for orchestra, Op. 63 (1909)
The Enchanted Lake (Volshebnoye ozero), Op. 62 (1909)

Famous for not composing The Firebird when Diaghilev offered the idea to him before turning to Stravinsky, Liadov was a born procrastinator.  Chronic shyness and ruthless self-criticism contributed to his problems.  His lack of ambition made him feel like ‘a grain of sand’ alongside the ‘gigantic mountain’ of his teacher and subsequent colleague Rimsky-Korsakov.  Liadov preferred to escape his daily problems into a world of fantasy and the supernatural.  “Art is a fantasy, a fairy-tale, a dragon, a water-fairy, a wood-demon,” he said.  “Give me something unreal and I will be happy.”

His most famous orchestral pieces are three short, attractive tone-poems with descriptive programs, based on Russian folktales.  These are Baba-Yaga and the two to be heard today, both of which incorporate music from an abandoned opera project – but are none the worse for that!  Kikimora’s delicate, skilfully controlled orchestration gives some idea of why Liadov was admired by his Russian peers.  Kikimora, a legendary witch in Russian folklore, is first portrayed as a child in the mountain home of her sorcerer-father, where she is told fantastic tales from distant lands.  Fully grown by seven, Liadov says, her head is the size of a thimble and her body thin as a blade of straw.  The tone poem portrays Kikimora as she “blusters and crashes about from morning till evening and whistles and hisses from evening till midnight.”

The Enchanted Lake is also drawn from the unfinished magical quest opera Zoryushka which Liadov had been musing over for more than 30 years.  Its lakeside scene is darkly scored and its harmonies slow moving and somewhat influenced by Wagner.  The evocative, impressionistic score shares his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov’s gift for orchestral colour and is often multi-layered.  “How picturesque it is, how pure, with its starlight and its mysterious gloom,” Liadov wrote.  “But above all, its absence of human creatures with their demands and grievances.  Only dead Nature – cold, menacing, but fantastic as a fairy-tale.”

Born in Sontsovka, Russia [now Krasnoye, Ukraine] April 15/27, 1891; died in Moscow,
March 5, 1953
Symphony-Concerto (Simfonia-Kontsert) for cello and orchestra, Op. 125 (1933–52)

Sergei Prokofiev’s Simfonia-Kontsert started life as the Cello Concerto Op. 58, composed for his fellow émigré, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.  Prokofiev began it in Paris in 1933, but only completed it once settled with his family back in Soviet Russia in 1938, after two decades outside the country.  His primary concerns at the time were film scores, most recently Alexander Nevsky for director Sergei Eisenstein.  The 1938 Moscow première of the concerto was a failure – “a complete fiasco” in the words of pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who had helped rehearse the piece with its student soloist.  Prokofiev felt that the work was not understood.  “Good music, but badly shaped,” was the verdict of his colleague, composer Nikolai Myaskovsky.  Prokofiev tried adding a cadenza for the US première by Piatigorsky two years later.  Still, the piece continued all but unplayed until December 1947 when the 20-year-old Mstislav Rostropovich acquired a copy and gave a performance with piano accompaniment at the Moscow Conservatoire.  Prokofiev heard the performance and immediately promised to rewrite the piece for the young virtuoso cellist who clearly grasped what he intended.  After reminding the composer of his promise many times, Rostropovich then received a newly composed sonata which helped form a working relationship between the two musicians.  The cellist advised the composer about technical possibilities before giving the première of a sonata which is now one of the most popular in the repertoire.

The following two summers were then spent with the Prokofiev family in their summer dacha.  Rostropovich was able to assist the physically weak composer, now under medical advice to limit work to just one hour per day, in a thorough re-working of the early Cello Concerto.  More rebuilding than renovation, the new structure was given its première by Rostropovich and a student orchestra (and Richter making his conducting début) as the Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 125 in February 1952.  Still unhappy with the results, Prokofiev did further work on the finale and on the orchestration throughout.  He retitled the piece Simfonia-Kontsert (in the Russian transliteration) in recognition of the orchestra’s structural role in the piece.  He never heard the première of the final version which Rostropovich gave in Denmark in December 1954, more than a year after the composer’s death.

The Symphony-Concerto is a large-scale piece, running close to 40 minutes in duration.  Structurally centred around its middle movement, its three movements employ the same melodic ideas as the concerto, at greater length and with greater clarity.  The cello plays almost without break in one of the most demanding and challenging roles for a soloist in the repertoire.  Throughout, Prokofiev’s melodic ideas are developed together with the orchestra, making the work a true hybrid symphony-concerto creation.  [Though published by its UK-based publisher as Sinfonia Concertante – and still frequently referred to by this title – this translation from the Russian original, brings an association with the 18th century concerto for two or more solo instruments which is, essentially, misleading.  The writing is symphonic, with a concerto-like solo cello line].  All three movements are melodically driven, with substantial changes of tempo in each.  The first opens like a slow march, with assertive, four-note rising chords drawn from the ballet score to Romeo and Juliet which Prokofiev was working on at the time of his earliest ideas for the original concerto.  The sinuously eloquent cello theme that the cello coils around these chords together form the building blocks for much of the opening movement.  The middle movement juxtaposes the sardonic scherzo themes from Prokofiev’s early days in the West with beautifully lyrical writing for the cello, gloriously exploiting the character of the instrument.  A demanding cadenza comes at its central point, fully two pages long, complete with alternative passages marked facilitazione.   (“Surely no self-respecting musician would want to play a ‘simplified’ version,” Prokofiev told Rostropovich).  The finale is in variation form, with a more modest cadenza and a final section that takes the cello, in a final burst of energy, into the highest notes of its A-string.

Born in Oranienbaum [now Lomonosov], nr St Petersburg, June 5/17, 1882; died in New York, April 6, 1971
Suite: The Firebird ((Zhar’-ptitsa) (1909-10/1919)

Russian folklore and exoticism were to become the specialty of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the renowned company that impresario Sergei Diaghilev brought together in Paris in 1909.  Russian folklore was the specialty of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  So, with Liadov sitting for months on a commission for the company’s 1910 Paris season, the Russian impresario turned to the young Igor Stravinsky – who had already contributed two orchestrations of pieces by Chopin for the 1909 company production of Les sylphides.  Sensing a vivid imagination in the 27-year-old composer’s music, Diaghilev suggested an exotic and familiar Russian fairy tale, with a storyline and choreography by Michel Fokine, as the subject of the new ballet.  Diaghilev would have known that Stravinsky’s teacher was Rimsky-Korsakov, the master of brilliant, descriptive music.  What he would not have known is that Stravinsky wanted to move in other directions, away from the colourful picture postcard world of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration.  However, the prospect of a prestigious Diaghilev commission set Stravinsky to work on the story of the Firebird and the ogre Kaschchei.  He worked in a dacha belonging to the Rimsky-Korsakov family – and the resulting ballet score was to beat Rimsky-Korsakov at his own game.  “Mark him well,” Diaghilev said to the company’s principal dancer Tamara Karsavina. “He is a man on the eve of celebrity.”

The Firebird ballet opened June 25, 1910 at the Paris Opera House and was a sensation.  It was also the beginning of a partnership that led to some of the most famous ballet scores and stage productions in the first half of the 20th century.  The action of the ballet, with its contrast between the natural world of Ivan and the enchanted princess and the supernatural world of the Firebird and Kaschchei, is made in musical terms by the device of contrasting diatonic and chromatic elements.  Rimsky-Korsakov had done much the same thing in his final opera Le coq d’or.  Stravinsky also borrowed the idea of horn and trombone glissandos from his former teacher.  Even more strikingly, he borrowed what he later described as “the natural-harmonic string glissando near the beginning, which the bass chord touches off like a Catherine-wheel [firework].”  Stravinsky, previously known only to a handful of people in Russia, now found himself acclaimed throughout Europe as one of the most gifted and promising composers of the new century.  The five-movement 1919 suite remains the best-known of three concert suites Stravinsky made from The Firebird, the seminal work that he was to conduct almost 1000 times during his career.

©2019 Keith Horner
All program notes are written by Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed:


Andrei Ioniță, Cello

Andrei Ioniță won First Prize at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, and prizes at the ARD, Feuermann and Khachaturian competitions. He was a BBC New Generation Artist from 2016-18 and is the Symphoniker Hamburg’s artist-in-residence for the 2019/20 season.

In addition to concerts in Hamburg, 19/20 will see Andrei debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra (with Gergely Madaras), Detroit Symphony (Elena Schwarz), Dresden Philharmonie (Krzysztof Penderecki), Bournemouth Symphony (Marta Gardolińska) and Turku Philharmonic (Christian Vásquez); and return to the Orchestre National de Belgique (Cristian Macelaru), Russian National Orchestra (Mikhail Pletnev), St. Petersburg Philharmonic (Ion Marin) and Rochester Philharmonic (Ward Stare).

Highlights of the previous two seasons have included concertos with the Münchner Philharmoniker (Valeriy Gergiev), Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (Kent Nagano), BBC Philharmonic (Omer Meir Wellber and John Storgårds), Danish National Symphony (Christian Kluxen), Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Karl-Heinz Steffens), San Diego Symphony (Case Scaglione), Yomiuri Nippon Symphony (Sylvain Cambreling) and BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Ainars Rubikis).

Andrei recently gave recitals at Carnegie Hall, Konzerthaus Berlin, Elbphilharmonie, Zurich Tonhalle, LAC Lugano and L’Auditori in Barcelona; as well as at the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schleswig-Holstein, Verbier and Martha Argerich Festivals. Forthcoming chamber dates include collaborations with Stephen Hough, Cédric Tiberghien and Kian Soltani at the Wigmore Hall and Pierre Boulez Saal. Andrei’s debut album on Orchid Classics combined a Brett Dean world-premiere with Bach and Kodály, prompting Gramophone to declare him “a cellist of superb skill, musical imagination and a commitment to music of our time.”

Born in 1994 in Bucharest, Andrei began taking piano lessons at the age of five and received his first cello lesson three years later. He studied under Ani-Marie Paladi at the Iosif Sava Music School in Bucharest and Professor Jens Peter Maintz at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, where he currently resides. Andrei is a scholarship recipient of the Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben and performs on a Giovanni Battista Rogeri violoncello made by from Brescia in 1671 on loan from the foundation.